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From Bike Geek To Surf Chic: How Oakley Took Over The World

Legend has it Oakley founder Jim Jannard was driving down PCH in the summer of 1983, the late afternoon sun shimmering off the Pacific, beaming right into his peripheral. Holding a hand up against the car window to block the California gold so he didn’t have to squint as he drove, a thought came to him: Why not curve his eyewear around the sides, for complete protection?

Jim started Oakley – named after his dog, an English Setter named Oakley Ann – in the ’70s in his garage in California with 300 bucks seed money, making accessories for the moto-x racing scene and flogging them out the boot of a Honda Civic, like his Oakley Grips, made from a rubber compound he’d come up with that got grippier, not slippier, when wet dubbed Unobtanium. Next up in his range of racing accessories, came goggles. With an eye for branding, he screen printed Oakley on the strap in big letters, which became a hit with BMX kids who wore the goggles on their helmets, just to have the branded strap kudos. 

Vintage Oakley ads, as recognisable and iconic as the eyewear itself

Jannard then conceived the world’s first sports sunglasses; taking a snow google lens, and putting it on a sunglass frame. Not just any frame of course, his had Unobtainium on the ear sock and nose grip, he called then Factory Pilot Eyeshades. Sports eyewear was thusly born. When Greg LeMond won the Tour de France in 1985 sporting a pair of Eyeshades, not only was an historic victory for a non-European, but also for innovation. But how exactly did the ultra-functional, performance eyewear go from road cyclist to being a dominant brand in a lifestyle about as far removed from peloton as you can go, surfing? 

After all, road cyclists tend to be so thin, biceps and torso of a toddler, they look unwell. Not really oozing nonchalant, laid back cool or badass 80’s beach attitude vibes either, grimacing and gurning like a cubist abstraction of a trench horse tangled in barbed wire as they summit the Ventoux’s hellish lung-bursting climb. And yet what started as road racing hardware soon became a core beachwear staple in every surf town in the known world. 

The release of the Frogskin certainly helped, combining the performance of Plutonium lens tech with a more traditional glasses frame. Suddenly, sunglasses were at the forefront of the 80’s brave new world. Shiny, futuristic, high performing. Lenses like Red IridiumTM had bold names, and big, R&D backed performance claims. Until then leading eyewear like Raybans, were essentially mid-century throwbacks to classic style icons of the past, the Rat Pack or Jackie O, black, heavy framed and voluptuous, or they were more wirey, Tom Cruise in Top Gun, aviator style, also a throwback to classic styles of yore. There was nothing retrospective in Oakley’s ever-growing offering, except reminding their ad reading public that the sun was in fact a nuclear fireball churning out radiation for the last 5 billion years. 

You surely didn’t want to go out in that looking like your dad, and unprotected, did you? 

Alongside that decade’s fondness for bright, brash, MTV aesthete badass-ness a growing desire for over-performing gear. People were wearing running shoes for driving to get a cheeseburger, kids doing paper rounds on aluminium frame mountain bikes with 21 gears. Oakley’s eyewear put above and beyond performance at the heart of the product, patented lenses exceeding government guidelines on UV protection, while delivering unparalleled visual clarity throughout the curve of the lens.

Aside from having a mad scientist rep, Jannard and the Oakley sports marketing team (another first, previously called the ‘promotions department’) weren’t afraid to think big on endorsement deals, with surf being no exception. Winners were grinners, and for some of surfing’s most iconic winners and their larger than life attitude, Oakley was the perfect fit.

TC, Pipemaster; Richie Collins in full Blades/fluoro/Webs era pomp. Photos Quiksilver // John Conway

Tom Carroll defied death and destruction at the Pipe Masters with era defining performances, the Razor Blades he wore on the podium to hoist the trophy seemed another part of his superhuman armoury. TC and other era lords like Elko and Richie Collins blazed new trails on the water, while on land, Oakley’s iconic eyewear kept harmful UV rays from their peepers. 

I remember seeing Mark ‘Sanga’ Sainsbury winning the trials for the Newquay comp in ‘91, sporting a trenchcoat, spiked flat top and Mumbo Frames for the presentation, looking fucking amazing. The fact it was overcast and raining, only further added to his look. As I walked off the beach, mind blown by these exotic wave shredding animals from faraway lands, I couldn’t help but notice neon Thermonuclear ProtectionTM stickers on the back of camper vans.

I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew I needed some, right now.

Italo boosted his way from up and comer to most relevant surfer on the planet, with very little backswing. Photo: Luke Gartside

The list of surfing World Champs who’ve had O at their temple at some stage in their careers is fairly exhaustive, from TC, Parko, Layne, Italo, Gabriel, CJ, Mick, Lisa, Occy, and it isn’t just the competitive animals either. Cultish free surfing icons like Bruce Irons, Taj, Bobby Martinez, Nathan Fletcher and Kalani Robb have all helped redefine the sport in High Definition OpticsTM too. In fact, Kalani riding in the tube at Chopes in a pair of Water Jackets might be one of the most recognisable ads in surf magazine history.

Styles and fashions come and go, but Oakley’s relentless dedication to perpetual innovation has seen the brand stay right at the cultural core of a global beach lifestyle. 


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